Love, sex and melancholia

A new book brings together the most honest of Hoshang Merchant’s writings: in between wistful yearnings for lost loves and lost languages, there’s some explosive commentary

A poet can be called a shaman, a seer or even a cheerleader. Having read Secret Writings of Hoshang Merchant, I’m not sure he is any or all of the above. In the introduction to the book, editor Akshaya K Rath says about Merchant, “Like a criminal he erases his traces.”

Therefore, I’m tempted to call him a criminal — a thief of the hearts, of souls (if they exist), and of passions we all possess but are in denial of. A criminal who displays all his stolen wealth with aplomb because they are actually his own, and then like a criminal, disappears his fancies. He is a queen of his own fancies and fantasies. Secret Writings, therefore, are the furtive works of a mind that smoothly operates to keep words shine as jewels and sentences flash their brilliance of wisdom and lilt.

Labelled as the first openly gay poet of India, Merchant is not a phenomenon, but a cluster of phenomena which no sexual orientation can prescribe or religious heritage (he is Parsi) can ordain. Secret Writings are secretive longings, sexual serenades, as well as deep philosophical musings. To say he is a gay poet is to overlook a body of work that is primarily Sufi, secondarily erotic, and humane and universal in an overarching way.

The introduction also says, “Merchant learnt to write from mothers.” Having heard this Hyderabad poet in multiple venues, in multiple moods, and in multiple reading avatars, the half-mother in him is evident. Merchant is lyrical, benevolent, and also passionate like the mothers we have known, the mothers we have loved and hated, and the mothers we imagine they should become. His own linguistic heritage and its loss make Merchant a pining soul. The Parsi language (his nomenclature) becomes a loss of primal, beautiful lust for him when he moves away from home, from his own shores, from history and lore. English is contrasted as stark, while Hindi brings out the pathos in his pleading. In gay Indian English writing — some of it specifically gay and a lot of it about an honest liberation of the sexual self — Merchant says he had to invent his own idiom. “Anglo-Saxon is so tight-assed”, especially when he is joyously celebrating the Indian-ness of his own coinages.

“Compare Eliot’s

Drop drop drop

To the Gujarati

Tipoo tipoo tipoo tapke

Sujata Bhatt, are you listening?!

Blood ‘oozes’: rakht reeztta hai!

Yes, it reddens your hand like henna, this language.”

Merchant has travelled the world over, found and lost loves, deciphered apathy and ennui, and has woken up every time tasting the beautiful and the bitter as an order of life. He is not regretful of that. He is sentient and sensitive to the nuances. And he is knowledgeable in a fairytale way. “Angels live not in the sky but at sea bottoms,” he writes.

Who are the angels? He has known humans and shadows all his life. He has flown high enough to bring down the stars to terra firma. The sea is a secret chest holding his writings. Angels cluster in there, as do waves and memory. One reads through and is compelled to ask again if Merchant’s secrets are little pain and pleasure pills. Whether he has decided to let us in to his innermost reflections because all secrets must tumble out one day. Like this candid scene, where he writes: “On the orgy bed I was a prostitute soliciting clients. Someone brought a warm mouth upon me. It was finished within minutes.”

Estrangement, too, is a recurring theme in Merchant’s work. I mentioned him pining for his mother tongue Parsi. This also means bemoaning the city of Bombay for him. Departure has made his heart as raw as a fresh sexual encounter. This is when you know you have made love for the nth time and let go. Yet, that love pricks hard when the time for estrangement is nigh.

“I left my heart on the pavements of my home city Bombay. I wrote ‘Arabs on Leaving Andalusia’ when I was forced out of Iran by the revolution (…) much before Darwish’s or Ali’s poems:

Goodbye orange grove

of crenellated garden wall

Goodbye land of courtship

where love depended on

a lift of a veil

Hello homeland

Poorer brother yet the same

Whose eastern window

Is flung open on a similar moon

In similar dawns. (2011 b: 56) (p 41)”

The pathos here is a lyrical, erotic one again. Just the uttering of ‘crenellated garden wall’ feels like the skin deliciously sore after lovemaking. Why does Merchant publish a book of ‘secret writings’, one might wonder. Does it indicate his poetry doesn’t educate or entertain any longer? Or, is it because poetry alone cannot remain a channel for his innermost thoughts, some of them allegedly scandalous and disparaging? (Allegedly, I said.) Reading this book many times over, a different scene emerges. A poet of Merchant’s oeuvre alone can write these scathing, funny, sexy, dirty, melancholy, and political musings. Homosexuality, law, classical textual references, notions of nationalism and patriotism, literary smokescreens and the anxiety of Indian-ness in diction — all of these are Merchant’s materials for sealing truths that are being deliberately obscured by an establishment today that is essentially anti-knowledge:

“In Hinduism a ritual bath takes away (gay) pollution. Manu’s law says that ‘an offender (active) should be sown up in the vagina of a cow’ (since the cow is holy) (Vanita and Kidwai 2000: 25-6). A lesbian’s two offending fingers were cut off. (p 201)”

I certainly hail Merchant in calling out such so-called ‘religious’ dogmatism. And what better way to show the finger to such moral and political bankruptcy than by compiling his thoughts in a book we all shall turn to every now and then. Not so secretly.

Published on TheHindu